Mismanaging Money, Clients, and Teams: How Not to Manage Projects, Part 4 of 4

This is the fourth article in a series about mismanaging projects. If you stop doing some not-good things, you’ll be left with better approaches to managing projects… or at least will be more likely to get out of your own way. (Believe me, this comes from experience. I’m quite the expert at getting in my own way.)

There are five aspects you have to manage to move projects forward effectively, the last three the focus of this article:

  1. The project itself, discussed in the January column.
  2. Time, which we covered in March and May.
  3. Money
  4. The client.
  5. The team.


“Money” is measured in two ways in the business of law: dollars (or yen, euros, etc.) and hours. Some project managers, especially in-house, work from a budget of hours, even with the client, whereas others work with dollar budgets.

Formulas exist that allow you to translate dollars into hours, but both represent “money.” (I’ll drop the quotation marks going forward.)

I see project managers mismanage money in two ways.

One is obvious. They overspend, often by not keeping track or by not setting limits.

The other is less obvious, but equally damaging to the project: They fail to discuss money, usually in the form of a budget, with the client. We’ll start there.

Discussing Money and Budgets is uncomfortable for many lawyers (and non-lawyers, too). First, it’s not what you’re trained to do, and second, you don’t necessarily have a good idea of project costs.

Your client lives in a world of budgets and money. They spend significant amounts of their time working on and managing and worrying about their departmental budgets.

Tip: If you “client” lacks the budget authority to okay your legal spend, you haven’t found the actual business client yet. In house, don’t let the nature of non-chargeback accounting fool you – if your “client” doesn’t have budgetary authority at least ten times what your project would cost were you to charge back, you haven’t identified the true client. Go up a level. Or two. Your ultimate client has to be someone who can say “yes,” not just someone who can say “no.”

Your business client expects you to discuss money, because pretty much every other discussion she has about projects includes the phrase, “So let’s talk about costs.” Even if you are not charging back, cost is a measure of what the project is worth. No client wants to spend $20,000 on a project that’s worth $10,000 to their department.

If nothing else, break the ice with questions such as these: “What is this matter worth? What’s at stake here? What do you lose if we can’t solve this?”

This discussion can also help you figure out how long (in terms of hours) the project should take. If there’s $20,000 at stake, say, consider what kinds of solutions you could offer for $10,000. I repeat: talking about money can be uncomfortable for professionals such as lawyers, or doctors. But the dialog helps set expectations, both the client’s and yours.

I recommend doing at least rough top-down and bottom-up budgets for a matter. The top-down budget is what we’ve just covered – given how much the client is comfortable spending, what can we deliver? Bottoms-up budgeting starts by deciding what a job well done looks like and adding up the hours/dollars needed to deliver that. If these numbers are very different, you must have discuss the options with the client. Again, remember this is a conversation the client is used to engaging in.


Once you have a (rough) budget, it is your job as project manager to a) track the costs and b) convey to each member of your team the rough idea of the time/money allotted for each task.

Have the money discussion with each task assignment.

I recommend asking as part of the assignment, “How much time do you expect to spend?” If his estimate is significantly lower than yours, follow up with, “Have you considered problems X and Y?” If his estimate is much higher, ask for a detailed explanation. You may be able to point them to resources they’ve missed or previous work they can adapt, or explain that this matter simply doesn’t support flying to Halifax to investigate an obscure case of maritime law. Or you may discover that you have missed some important stumbling block on this aspect of the project. Either way, you’ll get agreed estimates that help you keep the project on track.

The Client

Here are some ways to mismanage the client aspect of the project:

Fail to Identify the True Client: I pointed out some of these issues above. Note that the person approaching you with a legal problem isn’t necessarily the true client. Who has the business problem? Whose business/department suffers if you don’t address the matter?

Don’t Discuss Costs, as noted above.

Don’t Discuss the Definition of Success: What does success look like? What kinds of outcomes would you hope to see? What types of solutions are you open to? And then once you understand “Done,” it’s time to get client agreement on three Critical Success Factors (CSFs): If we accomplish these three things, you’ll consider the project a success, right? You can have four CSFs, maybe, but not fourteen.

Fail to Get Client Agreement on the Client’s Work: What is the client responsible for? When? What turnaround times does the client agree to? You can’t guarantee the client will stick to these agreements, but if you don’t at least have the discussion, there’s almost no chance clients will hold up their end.

Don’t Get a Read on Client Communication: How does the client like to communicate? Email? Tools such as Slack? Phone or video calls? In person? How often? Does the client want a) regular status reports or b) to be informed about progress milestones?

The Team

Let’s close with six ways to mismanage your project team.

Tell Them Half-Truths: Let’s face it: lawyers are taught to share only what they have to, but leaders share with their teams everything except that which they cannot (e.g., HR issues). Having a “lawyer’s mindset” with your team often leads to their doing extra work, or the wrong work, because they lack information about even simple things such as the client’s business goals. Obviously, you must respect privilege and confidentiality, but don’t use those factors as excuses for not sharing as much as you can.

Hide Deadlines and Budgets: Your team members need to understand the goals – and the context of those goals – toward which they’re working. Hiding deadlines includes setting arbitrary deadlines based on your convenience – or pulling some number out of the air – rather than on project requirements. Your team can read deceit, even if they can’t necessarily put their finger on the specifics.

Tell Them “How” Rather Than “What”: Your team is generally composed of legal professionals. Tell them the goal, but don’t necessarily instruct them on how to do it. Remember, the synonym for “your way” isn’t necessarily “the right way” but “a right way.” Obviously there are times for both teaching and mentoring, and certain low-level tasks, such as formatting a brief for a specific court, do have only one right way. But in the long run, you’ll get more from your team – and get to spend more time with family (or even billing yet more hours) – if you encourage them to use their considerable brainpower and intelligence.

Offer Poor (or No) Feedback: Correct in private, but praise in public. Or as the One-Minute Manager puts it, “catch them doing something right.” Positive feedback goes a lot further than negative feedback. And no feedback is as bad as only negative feedback.

Fail to Give Credit: Always give your team credit for what they’ve accomplished, spreading their praise to your manager, their manager, and/or the client as appropriate. (Hint: If you praise team members to your mutual manager, guess who also gets credit.) And if something has been screwed up, accept the blame rather than passing it on, with the attitude, How do we fix this?

Take No Interest in Their Needs or Their Lives: Your team members are humans who spend much of their lives outside the office. A simple “How was your weekend” goes a long way if you listen to and care about the answer.


Stay safe, and keep those projects moving forward.

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